How To Reduce The Negative Effects Of Sitting
Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction.
If you're reading this right now, chances are you're sitting down somewhere. Hell, as I'm writing this, I'm sitting down. Sitting has become so ingrained in our lives that it can be easy to lose sight of how much we do it—think time spent commuting, eight or more hours at work, several hours for meals, and a few more hours to watch TV, read, or go online. You get it—we're sedentary.
And if you're a heavy sitter, or have stayed even remotely up to date with health news in the last decade, you know that sitting is straight-up bad for us.
But unlike some health woes, there's something we can do about our sitting sickness. In fact, there are a few things:
1. Get up and walk every hour.
According to Sarah Kostyukovsky, PT, DPT, OCS, sitting for prolonged periods of time can shorten certain muscle groups—like our hip flexors—and put other muscles in a position where they're not active—like our glutes.
Taking walk breaks, even short ones, can activate our glutes and lengthen the front of the hips, essentially counteracting the physiological harm of sitting. That isn't to say that getting up to fill your water a few times a day is going to reverse all the side effects, but we should always be looking for ways to break up our sitting with movement.
After a full day of working or being out and about, our first inclination is usually to kick back and relax—when what we should be doing is stretching it out. If you've ever gotten up from sitting for a long time and your hips felt stiff, you understand why. Kostyukovsky recommends doing a hip flexor lunge stretch or a standing quadriceps stretch when you get home, and even throughout the day. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds at a time on each side and repeat as necessary (until your hips and quads feel like they've loosened up a bit).
3. Be active outside of your workday.
If you haven't already guessed, physical activity can help us counteract the negative impact of sitting. And while getting up during the day, going for walks, and stretching can make a difference, they're no replacement for moving and strengthening your body through exercise.
Current guidelines recommend that adults do 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least five days a week, but we tend to take the stance that doing something (ideally often) is better than nothing. Consistency is key—so we advise working exercise into your daily routine in a sustainable way (avoiding unrealistic wakeup calls at all costs). Even if you can only manage 10 or 15 minutes a day, if done consistently, you can reap the benefits.
4. Adjust your office chair and environment.
In terms of small but impactful tweaks that you can make to reduce sitting symptoms, fixing your office chair (or wherever you sit the most) and work environment is paramount.
"You want to make sure you have lumbar support to maintain the natural curve in your low back," Kostyukovsky says. "If you don't have a great chair, you can purchase a lumbar support pillow or roll up a towel and prop that behind your low back."
Another overlooked (and usually adjustable) aspect of our chairs is the height. If your chair is too high or too low, it will throw off your body's alignment.
"When sitting, your hips should be above the level of your knees," Kostyukovsky says. "Your feet should be planted on the ground underneath your knees."
If your chair is too high, you can consider putting a box under your feet to prop them up, and if your chair is too low and can't be adjusted, it may be time to search for another.
Wood chairs, metal chairs, small chairs, tall chairs—whatever you have at your disposal, there are ways to adjust it to fit your alignment needs, which, in turn, will make the hours you spend sitting less debilitating. Or if you're super dedicated, grab a standing desk (and stand with good posture, of course).
5. And seriously, squeeze in as much movement as you can.
A wise fitness editor once said, "The only way to combat a sedentary life is with an active lifestyle." Yes, that was me, but the point is that movement does add up. Fifteen minutes here, five minutes there—the more you can fit into your day, the better. Going for a longer walk during lunch, taking a break to stretch, or doing some yoga poses when you wake up can make all the difference when it comes to your physical and mental health.
Do some calf raises the next time you're standing in line. Take the longer route when you walk home. Knock out a quick ab circuit before your evening shower, or take a walk with your partner after dinner. Movement is movement—it accumulates and means something. But to be clear: Any movement isn't always enough movement. Capitalize on the various moments of downtime during your day—you'll be surprised how much you can fit in if you try.
Why is sitting so bad for us?
On the off chance that you need a small but substantial fire under your ass to get moving, let's talk about why sitting, frankly, sucks.
To start, sitting has unpleasant short-term effects—it can make our hips, back, and elsewhere feel stiff and tight. And if you're experiencing stiffness, pain probably isn't far behind. "Sitting with bad posture, or poor alignment, puts additional stress on our joints," Kostyukovsky says, "as well as soft tissue, like our low back."
Not to mention, the more sedentary you are, the more your body will want to be sedentary. In other words, not getting enough exercise or physical activity can actually make you feel tired. Kostyukovsky confirms this, noting that, "Most people don't know how to sit optimally or get lazy when sitting for prolonged periods."
The long-term effects are even more motivating—aka they're more serious. Beyond the occasional discomfort or even chronic pain, sitting can cause irreparable damage to our bodies.
"Over time, sitting can lead to musculoskeletal injuries from muscular imbalances and abnormal joint and soft tissue loading," Kostyukovsky says. "And sitting with poor posture can also lead to irreversible changes in the skeletal system, like an increased curvature in the upper back."
If you're already making all of the above changes to reduce the negative impact of sitting and still experiencing hip, back, or neck pain, the best action you can take is to see a physical therapist. And even if you're not in pain and you just know your posture isn't pristine, it's time to see a physical therapist. The way we see it: The best time to fix a problem is before it's too late.
Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction. A runner, yogi, boxer, and cycling devotee, Bass searches for the hardest workouts in New York (and the best ways to recover from them). She's debunked myths about protein, posture, and the plant-based diet, and has covered everything from the best yoga poses for chronic pain to the future of fitness, recovery, and America's obsession with the Whole30 diet.